Challenge Byron Sharp and grow your brand

New year, new thinking. What better way to start 2017 than by asking how well Byron Sharp’s influential book, ‘How Brands Grow’, accounts for real-world examples of brand success?

That is the exact question posed by my essay in Advertising Works 23, which analyses learnings from the 2016 IPA Effectiveness Award-winning cases which have sparked a reaction from Mark Ritson and others commentators.

The 2016 Effectiveness winners provide a robust body of detailed evidence from organisations such as the Economist (pictured above) against which to test some of Dr Sharp’s much-cited rules for growing brands.

These rules are:

1. Continuously reach all buyers of the category (communication + distribution) don’t ever be silent.
2. Ensure the brand is easy to buy (communicate how it fits with the user’s life)
3. Get noticed (grab attention & focus on brand salience to prime the user’s mind)
4. Refresh & rebuild memory structures (respect existing associations that make the brand easy to notice and easy to buy)
5. Create & use distinctive brand assets (sensory cues that get noticed & stay top of mind)
6. Be consistent (avoid unnecessary changes, whilst keeping brand fresh & interesting)
7. Stay competitive (keep the brand easy to buy & avoid giving excuses not to buy)

Arguably, rule one is the most contentious and discussed.  Sharp argues that blanket coverage is the most effective way to grow brands, and criticizes the “esoteric quackery concerned with segmentation, differentiation and how buyers perceive brands”.

Contrast this with the experience of Eurotunnel Le Shuttle. Its IPA Awards submission demonstrated that over five years, a segmented approach culminated in increased penetration in target segments and overall growth in bookings.

For another success driven by precision targeting, see Narellan Pools the Australian swimming pool manufacturer.

Narellan successfully activated its marketing only when specific climatic conditions were met and turned its spend off at other times.

Indeed, of the 39 cases awarded by the IPA Effectiveness Awards judges in 2016, 19 (49 per cent) claim to be targeting specific audiences, including both large brands The Economist and small ones Sixt car rental.

It is worth stating that many practitioners agree with Sharp’s approach and/or had built brands using these principles long before ‘How Brands Grow’ was published. 

Intel Inside’ and Compare the Market’s ‘Meerkats’ were built on highly recognised, consistent communications icons, distinctive memory structures, and own-able brand assets. Offering consumers sensory cues to unite all brand contacts is a way to maintain mental availability.

However, Effectiveness Award-winning papers from Pepsi Max and others suggest that sub-brands may have to develop their own approach and not just cannibalise their parent’s brand equity.

The Pepsi Max ‘Unbelievable’ case describes how the no-sugar variant successfully switched to a digitally-led content strategy in which filmed stunts and other content clips were used to win back millennials.

By its very nature, content is ever-changing, lightly branded, can have a relatively short shelf life, and often reflects the world of the consumer rather than the world of the brand. It is too soon to say whether this approach is sufficient to support the long-term growth of a brand of Pepsi Max’s size. However, we have to admire the brand’s commitment to finding new ways of communicating.

The 2016 Effectiveness Award winners confirm there are benefits to brands – particularly young ones – from investing in big, memorable brand communications across mass media to maximize mental availability and drive penetration, as Sharp advocates.

However, mature brands such as Eurotunnel, Officeworks, The Economist, Sixt, and Pepsi Max also found new growth routes using segmentation, high levels of message relevancy, and targeted use of budget to create impact and amongst specific consumer groups.

Great work requires more than following universal ‘laws’ and conventional thinking. Brands can also grow by breaking the rules.

That may be a nuisance for marketing savants. But it is the joy of our industry.


This article is extracted from ‘Advertising Works 23’, and a version appeared in Campaign IQ. It shows how marketing communications helped organisations as diverse as Guinness, Direct Line and Save the Children translate big ideas into impressive business results.


Last updated 21 January 2022